Dream Vertical: Morris Wines
The drive from Albury airport into the picturesque town of Rutherglen, with it ancient pubs and assorted landmarks of a bygone era, gives a sense of the history of this wonderful part of the world.
Originally built in the glory days of the 1850s gold rushes, it was ultimately to be gold of the liquid variety that made North East Victoria one of the great success stories in Australian wine. And this importance remains true today.
One of the legendary winemakers of our industry, and an integral part of the history of the region, is Morris Wines of Rutherglen. Five generations have grown and made some of Australia’s greatest wines, including the uniquely North East Victorian Muscats and Topaques, as well as the Morris flagship red wine, Durif.
Arriving at the Morris winery at Mia Mia, 15 kilometres outside Rutherglen, I am met by fifth generation and current custodian David Morris, whose family have been responsible for making the most consistently outstanding fortifieds in Australia for the last 160 years.
Walking into the dark cellar with its dirt floors and huge barrels, the temperature is chilly. There’s a mystery and magic to this place which anyone with even the remotest interest in wine would understand. I have a sudden feeling this is going to be, for me, an important and memorable day.
In 1859, George Francis Morris purchased 220 acres of prime north-east Victorian land, amongst the first released on the rich Browns Plains. He established his property, Fairfield, and the Morris family went on to make successful forays into grape growing and winemaking, as well as cattle, sheep and grazing.
However, in recent times, perhaps the most important Morris has been the legendary Mick Morris. Although retired, he can still be found in the cellars most days. His contribution to both the family business and the Australian wine industry cannot be over-stated.
Of course, Mick Morris’s greatest wines were his fortifieds – the Muscats, Tokays, Ports and Sherries, as they were then known, were amongst the finest Australian wines. But as these wine styles fell from their glory days in the 1960s, Mick realised there was a trend towards dry reds and he began to focus on making table wines from Durif, Shiraz and then Cinsault. The Durif was particularly unusual, with no other plantings in Australia at that time. But the gamble paid off and the Morris Durif today ranks as one of the best examples of the variety in the country.
Mick’s son David now runs the company, applying a common sense winemaking philosophy.
“The vineyard and its fruit are critical,” he describes. “The table wines must be fruit driven, with richness and flavour. Oak is important, but for structure, not flavour.”
For the fortifieds, he tells me, there are a number of key elements including, “Looking after your fruit in the vineyard, having a range of quality wines sitting in old oak, the availability of multi vintages of the base wines to provide all the required components and finally, blending those components to ensure the finest and most complex end product.”
Not many wineries in the world have these ingredients at their disposal, and David uses them to perfection.
Sitting down with David to a bracket of 20 Durifs spanning from 1985 to the current release 2013, I can’t help but bring preconceived ideas to the table.
Personally, I have always believed Durif, aka Petite Sirah, to be a turbo charged wine full of overripe fruit and high alcohol that you wouldn’t consume within 20 years of vintage.
Well, didn’t this tasting completely change my perceptions. Here we had a consistent style of elegant, balanced, fruit driven wines that were a complete pleasure to taste. Even the oldest wine from ’85 was still very alive, displaying attractive earthy chocolate aromas, good acidity and savoury fruit – not bad for nearly 35 years of age!
The Durif plantings go back to 1920 and for decades were used to produce fortified wines. Then Mick Morris produced the first ‘dry red’ Durif in 1954, making him the pioneer of the variety in Australia.
For me, the elegance, poise, structure and savoury fruit were consistent through the four decades of wines we tasted. As David explained, “We are looking for flavour more than anything in our Durif, flavour will absorb the tannins.”
There were one or two tannic wines in the bracket, but these represented vintage conditions and were still highly drinkable wines. It was certainly a bracket that had me re-thinking this variety and I’m sure I will be drinking more of these wines in the future.
The Art of Blending
Apart from Durif, the most famous wine from Morris, and indeed Rutherglen, has to be the ubiquitous Muscat, made from Muscat a Petits Grains.
Muscat is made all over the world, but nowhere else does this variety produce quite the same intensity of flavour and richness as in North East Victoria. The rich soil of Browns Plains and the warm, dry summers provide ideal conditions for ripening the grapes for fortified wines.
Only a handful of producers have the capacity to make base wine for Muscat and then to blend it to a final product using the laborious ‘solera’ technique.
Of course, it is the solera, as well as the reserve wines held in oak, that make the amazing Tawnies, Muscats and Topaques at Morris wines. I had the great pleasure of tasting the base wines from 1960, 1986, 2000, 2008, 2014 and 2018 – all direct from their barrels.
Each of these vintages could be used to blend up one of the several Morris Muscats – the older the base wine, the stronger the richness and flavour. Regarding the older base wines, David recalls his father used to say, “A tablespoon does wonders to 50 gallons.”
The 1960 was hugely intense and viscous, with aromas of raisins, Christmas cake and marmalade, and on the palate, an explosion of toffee, rancio and spice.
The Final Act
Vintage Fortified (formerly Port) is a personal favourite of the Morris fortifieds, and they have been producing them for over a century. David did not disappoint, opening wines from 2017, 2015, 2013, 2009, 2002, 1998, 1987 and 1984.
Vintage Fortified originated in Portugal’s Douro Valley, and sadly, very few Australian winemakers still produce it. But Morris have remained firm, and while it might not be their biggest seller, I realised upon tasting these wines how magnificent they really are. Unlike Tawny, which is matured in wood and will not improve once bottled, Vintage Fortified is bottled as a young wine and it improves with many years in the bottle.
The Morris Vintage Fortifieds were another revelation – the 1984, made from 100% Cabernet, was quite extraordinary, showing dark chocolate, licorice and spice, lots of primary fruit and great balance and length. This wine could see another 35 years! All the other Vintage Fortifieds were consistent in their quality, although David uses the Cabernet for table wines these days and instead, the classic Portuguese variety Touriga is now used. The current 2007 is a delicious after dinner drink, and offers outstanding value. It is a tragedy that these wines aren’t enjoyed and supported by more Australian wine drinkers.
A strong future
David Morris was handed the keys in 1993 and clearly the wines have maintained the finest quality across the entire portfolio. This is no mean feat when you are overseeing an array of sparkling, fortified and table wines.
The business has had many ups and downs over the years, including phylloxera, changing consumer tastes and several changes of ownership. It is no doubt a testament to the strength of character of the Morris family that they have endured all these challenges and maintained an outstanding quality of product. David’s son Madden is following his forbears and waiting patiently to one day take over as the sixth generation to control this national treasure. Long may the tradition continue!
Explore our range of Morris Wines here.